The Corner

David Brooks’ Genes (cont.)

Steven Novella, a neurologist at Yale, comments on David Brooks’ Tuesday NY Times “neural Buddhism” column on his own blog here.

Like most neuroscientists, Novella takes a firm stand against ghost-in-the-machine hypotheses:

Here I think Brooks has gleaned the wrong lesson from neuroscience, or perhaps he is just reading about neuroscience from a narrow perspective. Neuroscience, if anything, has become more hard-core materialist — except for those who superfluously lay their deist or Buddhist beliefs on top of the findings of neuroscience.

The statement: “meaning, belief and consciousness seem to emerge mysteriously from idiosyncratic networks of neural firings,” seems particularly odd. If you remove the word “mysteriously” this is actually a good summary of the materialist model of neuroscience. Yes — everything we experience as mind and self is an emergent property of the firing of networks of neurons in the brain. Brooks seems to be arguing that because this process is still “mysterious,” meaning that it is not well understood scientifically, that it is therefore justification for mysticism. This is nothing more than a god-of-the-gaps argument — inserting mysticism into the current gaps in our scientific knowledge.

I think this is too stern. Are there not difficult conceptual problems involved in the idea of emergent properties? (“Wetness” an emergent property of H2O etc.) Novella seems to be too dismissive of these and other issues relating to the “explanatory gap” between what our brains do and what we experience.

Some of his statements about psychology are also at odds with what I thought was the consensus.

personality tendencies are coded in the genes … personality tendencies are very strongly influenced (if not determined) by our genes …

Everything I’ve read on this asserts that of the variations in personality you find among a random group of humans, only about half are directly genetic. Novella seems to be saying something stronger. Does anyone think personality is “determined” — it looks as though he means “a hundred percent determined” — by the genes?

Some of the follow-up comments pummel around the terms “agnostic” and “atheist” in a mildly interesting way.

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